Land of the pulled punch? A response to the CBI

Steve Brooks responds to CBI Wales recent criticism of the Well-being of Future Generations Act and the Future Generations Commissioner

There are two points behind the CBI’s criticism of the Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe.

The first is that the commissioner is being overly negative and prioritising the environment over jobs, particularly in her assessment of the M4 bypass.  The second is that the commissioner hasn’t sufficiently engaged business.  I disagree with both points but nevertheless welcome the CBI’s public contribution to the debate.  In the land of pulled punches it is too easy to avoid controversy, yet more often than not challenge promotes progress and should be encouraged.

So in that spirit, let me challenge the CBI.  On the first point, about Sophie Howe’s approach to sustainable development and her stance on the M4, that in itself proves the point as to why the Well-being of Future Generations Act was necessary.  The CBI is wrong when it says the commissioner is prioritising the environment above jobs.  For a start, the two are not mutually exclusive; but this argument misses the point the commissioner was making on the M4.  Many of the opponents of a new bypass (Sustrans included) oppose the proposals on economic and social grounds.  We think it will be bad for the economy.  We know that more roads create more traffic, fuelling increased congestion that will be bad for business and commuters.  There are more useful things Welsh Government should invest in if it wants to boost prosperity.  

On the second point, it is for the CBI to say whether or not it feels engaged, but we must recognise the job which the Act set the Commissioner.  In the early years of devolution, the National Assembly (and then the Welsh Government) had a statutory duty to promote sustainable development.  At the time many of us saw it as ground breaking, but in reality without a political push the duty could be meaningless.  

I worked at the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), a UK-wide predecessor of the Future Generations Commissioner.  When the UK Government pulled funding from the SDC in 2011, Welsh Government rightly decided to look again at what external support and challenge it needed.  I worked closely with the commissioner Peter Davies and the then minister Jane Davidson, and out of that process the idea of a Future Generations Commissioner was born.  The whole point of the Act was to embed sustainable development across the public sector in Wales.  That is not to say that business doesn’t have a crucial role in sustainable development: it absolutely does; but there is much the public sector needs to do and that is what the Act sought to tackle.  The Commissioner was empowered with a remit that would naturally see her work focused on public bodies.  Her remit is different to that of the old SDC.  The SDC was a scrutineer, an advisor and a convenor.  It performed an important role bringing together different sectors and different views to tackle knotty problems, creating a space where the CBI could sit down with the IWA and Friends of the Earth to discuss green jobs.  Given the task in hand, there is limited space within the Commissioner’s current remit for convening stakeholders and building consensus.  

That shouldn’t lead us to fundamentally review the role of the Commissioner.  Public bodies are still busy setting well-being objectives and require support. We must resist the temptation to tinker.  Any fundamental review of the Commissioner would be an unnecessary bureaucratic burden.  That said, the CBI does rightly identify a need for cross-sector engagement on sustainable development, and that is the point I think Welsh Government should focus on.  By not explicitly empowering the Commissioner to perform this role and by disbanding the Climate Change Commission for Wales there is now limited opportunity for that kind of engagement.  In the short term, the Commissioner’s role could be enhanced to enable her to perform that much needed convening role, or other avenues like supporting the establishment of a Welsh branch of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development should be explored.

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Steve Brooks is National Director of Sustrans Cymru and Tweets from @stephenbrooksUK

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